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On Flag Burning

Congress recently passed a constitutional amendment making burning of the flag unconstitutional. Why do people get so worked up over a piece of cloth?

The flag is not any old piece of cloth. It symbolizes everything this country is and does, everything our ancestors fought and died for and what our current troops continue to fight and die for. There are special guidelines for treatment of the flag, including how to dispose of old ones. That's right—the guidelines say you should burn it. Many patriotic Americans, even servicemen, have burned the flag.

Some Americans oppose the government's actions so much that they destroy the symbol of what the country is doing in their name. Personally, I do not believe that these people hate their country, or that they are being unpatriotic. They hate what the country is doing, and want to change the government's policies. Admittedly, they have chosen a particularly stupid way of expressing this, one which is probably least likely to achieve their goals, but if there were a law against saying stupid things in stupid ways, we would all be in jail.

Once you start down this road, there is no telling where it will end.

One of the most important things the flag stands for is freedom of speech, the freedom of Americans to say any stupid thing they want -- provided it does not cause physical harm to anyone. Thus, shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater is not protected speech, but comparing politicians of the other party to Nazis, foolish though that may be, is. One of the hardest things we as Americans are called upon to do is to support the right of our fellow citizens to say things we hate to hear, in ways that offend us deeply. But without freedom of speech this country would not be what it is.

People who fly flags from their houses and car antennas are saying something nonverbal; people who publicly burn flags also are. To ban the burning of flags is to forbid Americans from speaking their mind, and nothing could be more un-American than that.

Remember, the flag symbolizes two things: what the country is, and what the country does. It is perfectly possible to love your country while opposing its government and its policies. In the past 30 years, almost everyone in this country has, at one time or another, opposed the president we had and the policies he pursued. This does not make us all unpatriotic—just the opposite—patriots have a duty to oppose the government's policies when they disagree with them.

The Confederate Flag symbolized the desire to split the United States in half. Many people died in the Civil War, in which some soldiers fought under that flag. The Stars and Bars has also come to symbolize (to many people) the degradation of African Americans that occurred during slavery in this country and continues in more subtle forms even today. One could certainly justify a claim that displaying this flag is unpatriotic. If we are to ban the burning of the American Flag, should we not ban the display of the Confederate Flag? And why stop there? Shall we ban the wearing of the American Flag? Only as underwear? Once you start down this road, there is no telling where it will end.

The country is as divided today as it has ever been, with people on both sides extremely opposed to the policies favored by the other. With a near equal division in the country, it is highly probable that each of us, sometime in the next thirty years, will find ourselves opposing the party in power. If the party in power prevents the opposition from saying certain things, or saying them in certain ways, then we will all find our freedoms impinged upon. This is most definitely not a ball we should start rolling.

David Reingold is a professor of chemistry at Juniata College.